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A Year After Quake, Challenges Remain For Haiti

Men build the frames for classrooms to replace a  Port-au-Prince school that collapsed in the earthquake.
David Gilkey
Men build the frames for classrooms to replace a Port-au-Prince school that collapsed in the earthquake.

Next week marks the anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, left a million and a half homeless and destroyed the capital of what was already the poorest country in the hemisphere.

Huge challenges still face the Caribbean nation and the international relief agencies trying to help.

Where Do You Start?

Rubble removal? Housing? Water? Toilets? Jobs? A government?

Haiti's needs are so great right now that pondering them can be overwhelming.

One year after the quake and months after billions of dollars in assistance have been pledged to help rebuild, Gregory Bateau says he's tired of waiting for someone, some agency or some aid group to rebuild his school in Port-au-Prince.

"The students need to go back to school, so we are building a structure for the kids to come and receive instruction," Bateau says.

But they aren't constructing another three-story concrete building. Bateau and a crew of four other men are hammering together rough-hewn sticks that will serve as frames for improvised classrooms.

The school used to have 4,000 students attending classes in three different shifts. When the quake hit just after 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, much of the school was empty -- not because classes were over, but because most of the students hadn't paid their tuition for the new year. The teachers had sent home early everyone who was behind on their school fees.

"Thanks to God we had sent them out because of the money," says Bateau. "If we hadn't, more than six children would have died." Three teachers also died when the school collapsed.

Bateau says a Japanese aid agency tore down the building and hauled off the debris. He says several other international groups promised to rebuild the school, but never did.

He hopes in 2011 he'll find a way to completely rebuild the school. But for now, Bateau says, he simply wants a place for students to gather.

The Pace Of Recovery

"I think Haiti is still waiting for a new future," says Stefano Zannini, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Haiti. He says the slow pace of the recovery is itself a problem for Haitians.

"The problem is not to live in a tent," Zannini says. "The problem is to feel not involved in these decisions. It is not being aware about what our future will be in the next years."

At the time of the disaster, Doctors Without Borders had a major operation in Haiti. But since the quake, its staff has more than quadrupled; it now runs 10 hospitals mainly in Port-au-Prince.

The crew uses rough-hewn sticks to build the classrooms.
David Gilkey / NPR
The crew uses rough-hewn sticks to build the classrooms.

Access to health care was so bad in Haiti before the earthquake that Zannini says Haitians actually have better health care now. But he says the response of international aid groups at times failed to address fundamental problems.

Doctors Without Borders, for instance, is now involved in cleaning drainage canals and chlorinating water as part of the effort to suppress cholera in Cite Soleil. There are more than 10,000 relief agencies working in Haiti and Zannini says it puzzles him that this task is left for a group of doctors.

Zannini says the international response was generous but at times lacked coordination.

"Sometimes different actors and [nongovernmental organizations] were fighting to put a flag in the same area or the same spot. And I think this is something we should reflect about," he says.

Understanding Need

The deputy mayor of the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince, Jean Gael, has also been reflecting about what has and hasn't been accomplished since the quake.

He walks through a market in Delmas near where the mayor's office recently rebuilt an important bridge with its own funds.

He says that at times the international community doesn't understand what Haiti needs. He says the impoverished country doesn't need food and care packages to hand out to the people living in the camps.

"What we need here is human resources, like skills. We need tractors [and] loaders to make the roads for all people to live," says Gael. "We have great vision in this community, but we have no means. We lack means to implement our vision. Amen."

"What we need here is human resources, like skills. We need tractors [and] loaders to make the roads for all people to live."

When he thinks back over the last year, Gael says he is proud and frustrated at the same time.

He shows off a new playground that's just opened. But then he points out a retaining wall along a river that desperately needs to be replaced, bridges that have to be rebuilt and thousands of destroyed houses waiting to be demolished.

Annie Foster, the senior emergency adviser for Save the Children, agrees that what Haiti needs right now are human resources and skills.

"I got here about 36 hours after the earthquake and I was here for the first three months," says Foster. "And then I left and now I'm back for cholera response. Not a happy reason to be back here but I'm back."

Foster says things have improved a lot since the months right after the earthquake. People are no longer sleeping in the streets, and many kids have been able to go back to school. Water is also getting delivered regularly at the camps.

"But still as you can see there's a long way for us to go. It's really a struggle here in Haiti," she says. "I've worked in a lot of different emergencies and this one really is, I think, the most challenging."

Foster says this has fueled many late-night debates at the Save the Children compound.

Professionals Rebuild Elsewhere

Before the earthquake, Haiti was a highly centralized country.

Political, economic and social power were all concentrated in the capital. The earthquake then struck the heart of the nation. But Foster brings up the same issue as Gael when pondering the slow pace of the recovery.

She says it's hard for Save the Children to find skilled Haitian professionals to run their aid programs.

"There's a big draw to the United States for professional people in Haiti. If they have a good education and the opportunity then they often leave. So that's a struggle for us," Foster says.

It's just one of the many struggles playing out in Haiti, as the country enters its second year of recovery from the earthquake.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.